How I Write: Spreadsheeting a Novel

Normally this spot on my blog would be for what I’ve been consuming story-wise, but I felt that type of post was too far from what I wanted to cover on Byline or By Crook. This site is meant for both readers and writers who want to know another author’s process and journey. So, for now, I’m going to focus on using the second Friday of every month as a place to share a more detailed look at a part of my process.

This new series is called How I Write. I hope you get something out of it.

One of my favorite steps in the writing, editing, and revising process is spreadsheeting my story. Spreadsheeting a novel is when a writer or editor takes a story and breaks it out into a spreadsheet summarizing the story on the scene level. It is a common process for a lot of professional writers because it allows them to see their story in an overhead way. Here’s why!

Spreadsheeting, for me, takes place once the story is all done and has gone through a couple rounds of loose edits. Spreadsheeting a novel means breaking it out into each scene and placing that scene, part by part, into a spreadsheet. When you do that, you’re forcing yourself to think about your scene not as a creative writer but as an editor and reader trying to make sense of what you’re actually doing on the page.

Each writer spreadsheets their novel a little different, but from the spreadsheets I’ve looked and used to build my own, they all feature columns dedicated to:

  • word count
  • setting
  • characters in the scene
  • scene number
  • summary of scene
  • problem
  • complication
  • conclusion

These are, arguably, must-haves for any scene. It’s the metadata that allows writers to troubleshoot where their scene may be falling off. For example, some authors catch that there are too many characters in a scene or that their word counts are bloated by putting their novel into a spreadsheet. Having the scenes in cells that you can move around and update also offers writers the ability to move their scenes around without messing with their original draft.

My spreadsheets for novels and stories are a bit more detailed. While I have the above cells in my spreadsheet, I also include spots for:

  • point of view
  • scene name
  • value shift
  • main character’s motivation
  • world/opposition motivation
  • conflict
  • resolution
  • previous scene consequence
  • continuing consequence
  • character change
  • turning point
  • questions asked
  • answers given
  • fixes
  • notes
  • reader feedback
This is part of the current spreadsheet of my recent novella’s early draft

It takes me a while to go through and categorize all the scenes for my novel into a spreadsheet, but the process is really helpful at getting me to see why certain moments or elements feel off. In my recent work in progress, there’s one point in the book where a majority of the readers said they felt like they lost the track of the story or felt like they weren’t sure where everything was heading.

Without having the spreadsheet, I think I probably would have thought I needed to add more conflict, action, and umph. Luckily for me, by putting the story into a spreadsheet, I was able to target this area as a problem on multiple levels, not at all related to the conflict. Not only did it go over my maximum scene word count, but it also didn’t have a lot of answers in it, and there wasn’t a continuing consequence related to the main plot of the story.

I can’t start spreadsheeting my novel until it’s done and I’ve made a couple edit passes. I want the novel to be as good as I can make it, at the time, knowing there’s still room for improvement. I also try and do this stage before diving into my full round of edits. By doing that, I’m able to figure out what edits I need to make during those stages.

While spreadsheeting really works for me and how I need to view my stories to make them work, a lot of writers find the task tedious and unnecessary. Some writers don’t want to see their story as an analytical piece of moving story. For those writers, spreadsheeting a story may end up breaking their story.

But if you’re unsure if spreadsheeting will work for you or if you’ve never tried it or if you’re afraid of it, I suggest you take the plunge and spreadsheet your story! I included my basic template that you can edit and move around or just use as a way to make your own spreadsheet.

Spreadsheet Your Story blank template

I didn’t think spreadsheeting my stories would help me edit and revise, but then I tried it with one story and it was like a doorway opened up to a whole new area of how I could see my stories. I’ve done it with most of my big projects ever since.

Are you a story spreadsheeter, too? I’d love to know!

Here are some resources that were helpful on my journey to figuring out how to spreadsheet my novel:

Thanks for swinging by and checking about how I write and revise a story! Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’m curious if you’ve ever tried spreadsheeting your novel or story.

I appreciate you stopping by! I’d appreciate it even more if you’d consider subscribing to my blog or checking out some of the books, games, and stories I have available for fans, followers, and readers.

3 thoughts on “How I Write: Spreadsheeting a Novel

  1. I’ve always heard of spreadsheeting a story (JK Rowling did the same thing by hand, right?), but now I realise I probably fall in the category of writers who don’t want to do the extra work, lol. Am glad to be a pantser now. But this was super informative as always. Thanks for sharing!


    1. Yeah, it’s not a process for the faint of heart. However, I think all writers should try it because why be scared of doing extra work on a story. That’s literally all being a writer is. Working on a story. Writing is hard work and putting in the hard work always pays off.

      And since novel spreadsheeting comes after the story is written, it’s not really a plotter or pantser thing and simply an editing or revision tactic, which all good writers do whether they outline or don’t. I know some writers who do use it before they start writing but I’m too much of a free-form writer to do a full break out like that before putting any of the actual story down.

      Thanks for reading! I hope you give the technique a shot. What’s the worst that could happen? You lose time working on your story. Seems like time well spent.

      Liked by 1 person

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